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The Epic of Gilgamesh with Sophus Helle

Sophus Helle is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Freie Universität Berlin. He previously translated “The Epic of Gilgamesh” into Danish with his father. His English translation of the epic was recently published by Yale University Press.  Songs in this episode: “Helen” by Glass Wave  “Gilgamesh Blues” by Glass Wave

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This is KZSU, Stanford.
Welcome to Entitled Opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison,
and we're coming to you from the Stanford Campus.
Entitled Opinions takes you many places.
Some of them in space, some of them in time,
most of them in both.
We've taken you 92 million miles away to the heart of the Sun
and tracked a photon's drunken walk from the solar core
to his roiling surface and from there to earth and into your human eye.
We've taken you to the methane sea on the outskirts of Infiniti.
Today our magic vessel heads to Sumer.
It's heading therefore to the very beginning of history
in the alluvial plains of ancient Babylonia.
If history begins with the invention of written records,
then it does indeed begin at Sumer.
We're a brown people of obscure origin,
but we're neither Indo-European's nor semites,
invented the earliest known form of writing over 5,000 years ago.
Resurrected from the oblivion only recently,
the Sumerians also invented the wheel,
the urban city, and the first codes of law.
They were the first to tell the story of a universal flood,
and oh, by the way, from them also come the oldest works of literature.
We'll be venturing into one of them today with all you enamored minds of entitled opinions,
so stay tuned, a show on the Epic of Gilgamesh coming up.
I'm joined today by Sophu's Hele,
a postdoctoral fellow at Frye University,
Dettin Berlin.
Sophu is a writer, translator, and cultural historian
who obtained a master's degree in a seriology from the University of Copenhagen in 2017,
before going on to earn a PhD in comparative literature in 2020.
In 2021, his new, learned, splendid English translation of the standard Babylonian version of Gilgamesh
came out with Yale University Press.
Sophu is here to share some thoughts with us about this most ancient and astonishing literary work
to have come down to us through the ages in various versions.
Rainer Maria Rilke exclaimed in 1916, "Gilgamesh is tremendous.
I hold it to be the greatest thing a person can experience."
Well, there's nothing wrong with a little hyperbole,
especially when it comes to this epic cycle, which I have been teaching for years,
and which never ceases to amaze me.
Sophu is welcome to the program. Welcome to entitled "Epinience."
It's great to be here, Rob.
A lot of people have heard of Gilgamesh, but don't know a lot about it.
Maybe you could start by telling us what exactly is the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Sure thing. The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem composed in the region,
and I'll call Iraq. And the version of it that we most commonly read was composed on 1,100 years BC.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is written in the writing system we call Q&A form in the Acadian language.
And this version that I'm talking about can be divided into two parts.
The first part tells of the eponymous hero of Gilgamesh's deep and intimate friendship
of the wild man Enkidu and his triumphs in battle. Then midway through the story Enkidu dies.
So the second part is about Gilgamesh's deep grief and his ultimately futile search for immortality.
So I know that I spoke about the Sumerians and the version that you said that most commonly is really not the one is translate that you translate.
It's not the Sumerian one, but it's rather the Acadian version.
From what I gather, the Sumerian, the earliest versions of it were about 2,100 BC.
Yeah, that's correct. So it's important to realize that when we're talking about ancient Iraq,
we're not talking about a single civilization as we might when we are talking, for example, about the Egyptians.
So ancient Iraq consists of a number of interlinked and interwoven cultural systems that really come and go over the millennia.
The Sumerians and the Babylonians and the Assyrians being the best known, but there are a bunch of others going on at the same time.
So yes, Gilgamesh starts in Sumerian. Those are the earliest preserved versions of this story.
And then later it is translated or rather retold in the Babylonian version of the Acadian language.
What interests me about the fact that it comes from Sumer or that Gilgamesh is not only the earth, if it may not be the very, very first,
but it's the first major epic in world literature that we know of.
And it's a story about the first hero, patriarchal hero that we know of in this king of Ulrook.
And in the prologue, we know that he is the builder of the walls of the city of Ulrook.
And those walls are referring to a city, which again, the Sumerians were the first makers of these urban cities.
Walls are very interesting because walls divide.
They divide the inside from the outside.
They divide nature from culture.
They divide all these kind of distinctions on which civilization is built, earth versus sky, the gods, mortal and immortal.
And it's one of his great achievements building the walls of war.
But it's also the case that this story is about a hero who is suffering within the walls of the very city that he inhabits because he feels trapped in there,
and he's in the lonely ego of history or something.
And so, as you said, there's two journeys he has to go out, beyond, out of Ulrook, and then twice, not once, twice.
And I was referring earlier to this like two-fold structure and the walls are absolutely central for understanding how the epic is this built, you know,
because the story begins by praising the walls of Ulrook, and then exactly midway through the story they're mentioned again.
And then we see them a third and final time in the very, very last lines of the story.
So the walls of the city also mark our entry into the story, and they mark the emotional transformation at the heart of it, and then they mark like our returns to everyday life.
And as you say, that really links the story to the city.
And it's so important for understanding ancient Iraq that these are profoundly urban cultures.
And Ulrook, which is the first megacity that we know of, but the entire history of ancient Iraq is a history of cities.
So I have a question for you, so, Fus, and I have to say, I'm full of admiration for anyone who takes the effort to learn these languages and be able to translate it.
And we really should be supporting the study of Assyrian and Babylonian culture much more.
So maybe you can answer me this philological question, because in the version that I know and which I teach from has always been this penguin classics, which is a different version of Sumerian, Assyrian, hit-tied even.
And I'm curious, because in the prologue to that, the poet is saying, look at the walls, is it not burnt brick and good?
I don't know if that's a correct translation, but if it is, it seems to me that there's some connection between the walls and the uniform form of writing, where you have clay tablets, and you actually use a wedge to make little marks.
And I don't know if that's the same material.
It absolutely is.
Even more explicit a few lines afterwards, when we get the description of the city of Uluk, and if the scribes Uluk as being made of three parts, there are the houses, there are the orchids, so you know that are producing fruit, and then there are the clay nets.
And then finally, there's the temple of the goddess.
But these clay pits, it's a little odd you're starting to read this epic poem, and so the things talking about the size of the clay pits of Uluk,
but that is because the clay pits have this double significance you just described, that that is where the stuff of the city comes from, that make up the houses, but it's also the stuff of writing.
And it's, you know, if you look at me, it's such a profoundly self aware text. It's always reflecting on what it's doing as a text, what it means to tell a story, and that is announced already there in the beginning.
So Gilgamesh patriarchal hero, he builds the walls, but he also wants to, as he tells the god, you know, the Shammash later, he has, or he tells his friend En Quito actually, I have not yet stamped my name in brick.
I have to go out and do something which will enable me to be remembered, you know, in the Cuneiform tablets, which will, you know, assure some kind of glory and fame after,
you know, after death. This is a very typical drive for most heroic exploits. It's the drive to be remembered in the future, you know?
Yeah, and I've really been thinking about this a lot lately, how what we think of when we think about heroic attitudes is often an investment in the future, you know, an orientation towards the future, often at the expense of the present.
And I think there's a really interesting moment that reflects this when Gilgamesh, and this is not preserved in the 11th century version I was talking about, this is from an earlier, all by the long end version.
Gilgamesh meets the inkeeper of the gods, Shiduri, and she tells him, you know, to drop his quest and to go home, and what she tells him to do is to focus on the everyday, you know, on everyday pleasures like food and sex and, you know, a good shower.
And that is a non-heroic orientation towards the present and towards, you know, our lifespan. So I think you're absolutely right that what characterizes heroes and their quest is to be looking not at the present.
I also do think that Gilgamesh, the ethic, again, we keep returning to these two homes. In the first half, he has this classic hero attitude that he wants to be remembered forever.
But then when Enki do dies, that really changes his thinking about death, right? He becomes much more investment invested in an actual physical eternal life. Now that he is seeing what death entails, right?
It's not enough to have the metaphorical afterlife.
We'll reconstruct the friendship within Kirito in a moment. I just wanted to maybe conclude on the orientation towards the future.
I've always found it paradoxical that this drive to be remembered in the future is this idea that memory is always looking backwards. If there's a sense that you're already dead, and that even in the future is this backward looking, it seems like to be a very weak sort of response to the kind of
human mortality. Absolutely. I think that's such a good point. You're trying to preempt it by imagining yourself as dead and as remembered. I think that's very important.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about the terrible anxiety about death that we're going to get into.
You mentioned Enki do Enki do is this fascinating figure who is basically a wild man, he's human, but he lives with the animals.
He is the only one who seems might be powerful enough to be the equal of Gilgamesh who in the meantime, having created the walls of work, he's inside the walls and he's terrorizing, essentially he's terrorizing his own people.
Because he's behaving like I don't know Saddam Hussein in the same part of the world, or Saddam Hussein's sons where he's claiming the rights of first nuptials, namely every woman who is to be married,
he insists on sleeping with them and his people are not at all happy because he seems to have this young, almost adolescent.
The little bit of anorarchy and energy and perhaps even this kind of little disorder where he's just engaged in rather, riotous, unruly behavior.
And Enki do is the wild man who is humanized by a prostitute from the temple of Ishtar.
Now we want to talk about this. Can you tell us who is Ishtar and what role does the prostitute and women in general play in the domestication of the wild man Enki do so that he can actually eventually come to the city of Uruk and tame in a certain sense, tame Gilgamesh by becoming a
Absolutely. So I think before I get to the specific scene of taming, I just want to frame that a little up by saying that Gilgamesh has many themes and one of those themes is the borders of humanity and the
humanity and something else. And so on the one hand you have Gilgamesh who is two-thirds of a god and one-third human and who wants to become a god and to live forever.
And then you have Enki do who is the reverse of him who is part animal and part human. He is fully human genetically, he's using the characteristic phrase, but he grows up among the animals and has to be domesticated.
And so it really brings down these slippages back and forth across the border of humanity and does so in various interesting ways.
So that contextualizes the scene of domestication we're talking about. And indeed this priestess, possibly sex worker named Shamhan, is sent to tame Enki do because he's making trouble for the hunters.
There is this quite extraordinary scene where they have sex for six days and seven nights twice. So that's quite, you know, speaking of little bit and a lot of this order.
And this phrase, the six days and the seven nights that keeps appearing in the epic sign that again to mark these transformations back and forth across humanity.
So, you know, what is then the role of women in that? And I think it's very interesting that women first of all, they do symbolize the city and the, you know, the wisdom of the city, Shamhan is a very wise speaker.
At the same time, she is also a liminal figure and marginal figure. I really think it's interesting that, you know, guilt measures the epic is very interested in what we today, you know, to use another anachronistic phrase would call female agency.
And it's often showing female agency at the margins. So women who are excluded from the main sphere of male power, but still managed to have some kind of influence or some kind of agency in relation to that sphere.
And again, Shamhan is a great example, you know, she really is critical, she's crucial for the story. But at the same time, she plays a very bivalent role in the social world of the epic.
And Kirito, as I said, you know, he's domesticated in this moment. And then later when he dies, he looks back at that moment, he remembers that moment.
And, and curses Shamhan for introducing him to humanity because he feels, and this is, you know, very much a mis-rotaining way of thinking about it, he feels that by becoming human, you become mortal.
And so, you know, in that she domesticated them in that she made him human, she conside him to death. So he curses her.
But then we get this counter-perspective that the Sun God intervenes because the Sun God is the old seeing Sun is the commander of justice. And he intervenes and, you know, reminds Enkido that by being civilized, he was also introduced to the love of his life, Gilgamesh.
And so Enkido replaces the curse with the blessing. And that double-take, you know, is really crucial for how we understand these, these priestesses, possible sex workers, they are, you know, they are in bivalent. But they, sorry, she somehow represents the transition here from the wild to the culture.
Well, indeed, and in fact, in the version that I know the best in, in about 10 sentences or, let's say, a paragraph, you get a micro evolutionary history of the civilization or humanization of the human race of the figure of Enkido, where this priestess dresses him, he becomes the friend of the, of the shepherds.
I mean, you go from the hunting and gathering to the shepherd nomadic and then finally to the urban.
And Enkido goes through all these stages, which you could see as taking place over on Balennia, maybe, of human evolution there in Mesopotamia, with the strong suggestion that perhaps prior to the arrival of the patriarchal sky gods in Mesopotamia, there might have been,
it's some kind of mother earth worship where their female deities had a lot more authority and power than they had by the time the epic of a gilgemesh gets written down.
And that there has, in the meantime, maybe has, has been an overthrow of that female agents, we call it female agents and we call it mission of female divinity.
No, absolutely. And I think, you know, the roots, like the deeper prehistoric roots are, of course, difficult if not impossible to reconstruct, but there is absolutely a huge revolution in the early for evolution makes it sound almost positive.
A huge shift in gender relations in Mesopotamia in the middle of the Second Millennium BC.
And that is honestly, you know, I call it the great gender gap, because women are demoted, especially in religious spheres, which were often their main access to power.
They are demoted across the board, these positions of power that existed earlier like the high priestess.
They disappear female deities are replaced by male deities, for example, the goddess of writing becomes a god of writing.
But we really, that's one of the big topics that I think the field still doesn't understand and hasn't studied as closely as it should. I think that's something that futures scholars will have to look into.
One of the main characters in the epic cycle is Ishtad, who is the goddess of love. I mean, she also is quite ambiguous. I think that you see in her rather some contradictory aspects.
On the one hand, she seems that she's been demoted to a sex goddess or goddess of love. Yet at the same time, her power is very real because she also holds the key to the granaries and she threatens at a certain point to unleash the dead from the underworld into the world of the living.
Absolutely. And Ishtad is such a fascinating figure.
And I've really spent a lot of time on Ishtad both with Gilgamesh, but also with the book that I'm currently working on, which is a translation of hymns by the Sumerian poet in Hidwana, who is the earliest known poet that we know, that we know by name.
And in Hidwana's hymns are hymns to the goddess who is known as the marine in Anna and as in a K-G-N-S Ishtad. And especially in Hidwana's poems, you get these descriptions. I'm just going to read a short passage that really brings out this contradictory force that you're talking about.
And this is from Hidwana's hymns to in Anna, who is the same as Ishtad. To destroy and to create, to plant and to plug out a yours in Anna, to turn men into women, to turn women into men, a yours in Anna, to step, to strive, to strive, to arrive, a yours in Anna, to turn brutes into weaklings and to make the powerful puny, a yours in Anna.
And to reverse peaks and planes to raise up and to reduce a yours in Anna. So that really gives you a sense of like, you know, this is the goddess of change, of chaos, contradiction.
And that is also the goddess that Gilgamesh meets and rejects.
And he also slays the bull of heaven, her bull. And that bull is also a kind of sacred animal. And we know that going back deep into prehistory, the bull has always been associated with feminine fertility, you know, the horns of the bull in their correlation with the lunar, you know, the moon figure.
And this whole, I think it's the gates of horn, fantastic book, a great book about prehistory and the sacredness of the bull, there's association with female fertility, the fact that Gilgamesh and Keidw
slay the bull of heaven and cut off his horns and hang them up as a trophy, it's a typical patriarchal sort of triumph over some other.
And again, like this is a point where they, you know, you're picking up on something very true. And then the epic makes it so explicit because they cut off its penis. I read it as penis, there's some disagreement about that, but I do think there's a penis graduating.
That's interesting. Yeah. Yeah. And then they throw it in each kind of space, you know, literally in her face. And like it can't get much more explicit as a patriarchal rejection of people power than that. You know, that's as clear as things get.
And again, I think that's such a key scene because there is this, you know, ultimate rejection of her, the two men who are heavily invested in one another, reject the woman.
But then the woman fights back and at that moment, it is that that moment that Easter steps up on the walls of Uruk and say world to Gilgamesh and that is the beginning of the second act when everything starts going wrong. So again, female agency being exerted from the margins.
And another, we did an issue so if it was to the feminine is nature. And the, you talked about, you know, and key do coming from a state of nature into humanity versus Gilgamesh who is two thirds God one her, by the way, to be two thirds God and one third human. I mean, mortality, it's like pregnancy, you either are or you're not, you're either mortal or you're not.
Yeah, and that's his problem. You know, it's just in the beginning we're told, oh, he's two thirds God and we think that's a lot. And then later when he heads into the lands of the gods, there is this, the scorpion woman who says, oh, he's only two thirds God. And like that really carries out that's the first thing you talk about.
But it's that one third human that makes it a certainty that he's going to die. Exactly. So he suffers from the anxiety of his own awareness of mortality is a deep existential anguish which makes the epic of Gilgamesh such a modern, I mean, makes it so relatable to modern years.
But there you have him looking over the walls of Ulrook according to his prayer to the sun god Shamash saying, "Shamas, hear me, hear me, Shamas let my voice be heard here in the city man dies oppressed at heart. Man perishes with despair in his heart. I have looked over the wall and I see the bodies floating on the river and that will be my lot also."
And here from what I gather from the notes is he just looks over the walls and he sees the bodies on the river according to ancient Sumerian ritual, a funeral rituals where they would put the corpses on little rafts and send them down the river in a kind of procession.
He's really telling Shamash, "I've looked at death, I've looked at the funeral rites and therefore I have to go to the forest. I have to go and slay Humbaba, who wahwa in Sumerian, Humbaba, who is actually a sacred forest demon."
That is the first journey where he thinks that by going up north to the Cedar Forest and slaying this forest demon, which is a figure I think clearly for the cutting down of forests, in the Cedar Forest because a king in those days could achieve a great deal of glory by having a successful expedition to cut down as many trees at possible.
And the logs down the river, back to the city of Oruk, because they used this wood, it was very essential resource for them.
And I think that the forest expedition, on the one hand, had this utilitarian purpose, which is to bring wood back to the city. On the other hand, psychologically, it seems like Gilgamesh is suggesting that I've looked over the wall.
I see the dead bodies floating down the river. I'm going to go up to the north, I'm going to cut down all the logs, and how did they bring them back to Oruk, fearing them down.
So these logs become the cadavers in a certain sense. And do you have a sense that Gilgamesh is also taking a certain kind of revenge psychologically in the world of nature because nature with its cyclical seasonality and the fact that birth and death are one in the natural world.
That he is excluded by being entrapped in his lonely historical city where he lives in linear time, that he's going to make nature pay a price for the fact that he does not have nature cyclical eternal return, nor does he have the gods kind of permanent immortality.
I think you raised a number of very interesting questions here. I just like one tiny detail to start with is that as you say these expeditions, they were real, like it's a mythologized version of real expeditions, because Iraq, especially Southern Iraq, just has no timber of the size you need to buy it, build big palaces.
And I think you really hit the fact that the question of why Gilgamesh and Inky do go on the expedition against Obama is surprisingly difficult to answer.
Because you expect that, okay, heroes fight monster, this red-spaced forward it almost doesn't need a reason, but Gilgamesh really takes that motif and complicates it. And already now we have two or three reasons for why Gilgamesh might be wanting to do this.
Some sort of a utilitarian purpose, some sort of like angst about death, about wanting to establish his name, but also what you suggested about sheer anger at nature.
And so the passage that you read is from the Sumerian version of the story.
And if we turn to the occasion version of the story, again, there is something that really can help flesh out this case, which is, and this is relatively recently discovered fragment in a period only seven years ago.
And here Gilgamesh and Inky do have destroyed the forest, they have turned it into a wasteland, and Inky do ask why, why did we do this?
And specifically he imagines the gods questioning them, and the gods say to him, you have turned the forest into a wasteland, what wrath, what anger, had you trampling through the forest.
So Inky do himself identifies as anger, which I think chimes very well with what you're saying. But he doesn't answer, he can't answer, he asks himself why, what anger was this?
And he doesn't know, right? He's not a loss for words. And you know, you use the word psychology, and I think it's in scenes like these that the epic emerges at its most psychological.
It's asking questions about human motive, but it's also telling us that those questions are incredibly difficult to answer and may be impossible to answer, which is the key inside of modern psychology that motive isn't legible in direct ways.
Wow, so if I wish I had that fragment that was uncovered seven years ago that we had known about it 20 years ago when I wrote a book about forests and made the claim that what we get in the forest expedition of Gilgamesh is an archetype of this mindless, inexplicable destruction of the forest to turn it into a forest.
I think you're lucky, you put out a theory and then fragment you could not possibly have known about, and supports your case because I really do think that. And I think it's such just to think of all that has happened in those past 20 years of our current relations for us is scary.
Well, it is and it's not finished. I mean, it's what's taking place in the Amazon rainforest today is even more exacerbated than it was back then, which was bad enough.
And you have a sense that the utilitarian purpose that you want to clear for, no, there's this unmastered impulse to create a wasteland, almost as if to take revenge on the fact that we have to die.
And the Gilgamesh epic is so much about trying to probe the psychology of almost an adolescent way of thinking where you externalize it that you're acting out your rage rather than working through it.
That's a true, that's a Freudian distinction, but it seems like the forest journey isn't acting out at a very destructive, and as you say, it doesn't end happily for anyone because Enkidu and other, even the gods say, "Wait a minute, who am Bhabha is a sacred demon?"
And someone has to pay, as far as I can tell it seems like one of them has to pay for this transgression and Enkidu, and I think that his death is somehow related to this transgression, no?
Absolutely, and it's related to two expressions, it's related to the murder of Bhabha and it's related to the killing of the bull of heaven.
Each time he says that, as we were talking about earlier, and again, it's remarkable that they treat the bull of heaven the same way they treat the forest.
They kill it, and they go about extracting resources, they take the horns, they take the hard-out, they take what they can use, and it's that relation to nature that brings about Enkidu's death ultimately.
And I think we're talking about this anger, or this difficult relation to nature, and how death and flex that.
And again, it's important to remember the slippages at the borders of humanity, or talking about earlier, that I think the phrase that I use in the book is that the epic has a double definition of humanity.
That humanity is often depicted as being unlike the gods, but in a way that is unlike animals.
So, in relation to death, we are unlike the gods in that we cannot die. Sorry, that we must die, that they cannot die.
But we are unlike animals in that we know that fact, right?
So it's that double difference that really characterizes our relation to nature and through the religious fear and guilt of the flesh.
And again, if you have the expedition westward to the forest of seaters, with the violence that we've been talking about, then you have the expedition eastward in the second half, because always there's a mirror in between the two hams.
So, we then go eastward and we come to another forest, which is the forest of the gods, where you have these trees that are made of gems and stones, which is, you know, again, a weird conflation of the natural and the divine.
Because of course stones don't grow like you know.
Well, so there are two major journeys, as you're saying, the forest journey, but in between the two, there's the death of Enkidu, which plays a fundamental role in Gilgamesh's decision that not decision.
He's almost like he has to go out and seek immortality, see if he can avoid the fate of his best, I mean, not just his friend, it's really his lover.
Yeah, their relationship is spoken of in terms of a marriage almost, you know?
Oh, it definitely is.
And again, you can discuss all day whether they have sex and you know, at one point it's just you have to stop asking that question, because it's not the most interesting question.
They love each other and whether that is platonic or not, I don't think the particular cares about.
They love each other and they absolutely do describe their relationship as a marriage.
Oh, absolutely.
And so this death of Enkidu is also envisioned in a dream that Enkidu has that he reports to Gilgamesh.
So he sees the underworld, he sees another world, he sees what the fate of the dead is among humans.
And here I'm reading again from the, not your translation unfortunately, because this is the one I know that I've used and I have the page markers and I'm going to have to become a climatized to your version for the future.
He says, there is the house whose people sit in darkness.
Dust is their food and clay their meat.
They are clothed like birds with wings for covering.
They see no light.
They sit in darkness.
I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth.
Their crowns put away forever.
Rulers and princes, all those who were once wore kingly crowns and ruled the world in the days of old.
They who had stood in the place of the gods like Anu and Enlil stood now like servants to fetch baked meats in the house of dust to carry cooked meats and so forth.
For a hero like Gilgamesh, whose whole identity is based on distinction, heroic distinction, this is the most grotesque prospect imaginable.
This utter democracy of death in the afterlife.
And I love that phrase.
I really love that phrase.
The horrible democracy of death.
I think that's such a key description of what Gilgamesh fears.
He fears death, but he fears specifically what you were describing as the democracy of death.
Because as we've already drawn out like part of what drives him, even though he can't hold his articulate to himself, is self-assertion, including through aggression.
And death is the ultimate wiping out of all that.
Death is the undoing.
And we've already mentioned the association between death and rivers.
And that's key to Gilgamesh's legend more broadly.
According to the Sumerian version of the story, he was buried underneath the Euphrates River.
But also in the standard Babylonian version, which is the version from the 11th century, you have a very powerful one of all.
And that's the death of death, which contrasts death with the death of the individual with the flowing of the river.
There's a model that's ethical about this, by Andrew George called the Mayfly on the river, which really talks about how the epic juxtaposes these two kinds of time to return to this issue of time.
There is a time of the individual, which is the time of the story.
And that's short and is full of events.
And then there is a time of the river, which is also the time of the city.
And that's slow and it's seasonal.
And there is no individuality within that time.
There is no self-assertion.
And always the epic is juxtaposing these two perspectives.
And there's the opportunity for stories that individuals represent.
And then there is a large perspective.
Be that the river or the city or the sweep of history.
And I was mentioning earlier how the epic has the description of all of us consisting of these quarters.
There's the city and the orchids and the clay pits and the temple.
And that is the view of humanity that emerges in the very last lines where you don't have individuals.
You have a certain amount of square miles of people.
And that is the collective vision.
And between those two visions, the collective vision, the individual vision, you know, between them you find death.
F. Media is between one and the other.
Would you say so for a set?
If there's a moral lesson in the story, it's that Gilgamesh has to learn that to be a king means to give priority to put first the good of the collective, the good of the common square miles of people.
Rather than his own egoic, you know, obsessions with his own personal fate as a mortal human being.
And that perhaps the second journey which ends in failure because he searched for immortality and he's told to go home that there's nothing that they can do for him that he has to kind of man up to the fact that he's going to die.
I know that, you know, in American teaching of these things you always try to look for a moral at the end of the story.
I'm not sure I see it in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but there is a suggestion that if he's going to learn how to be a good king, he's going to have to put the others first, not him suffers.
I really share both your instinct and your ambivalence about that instinct. And in my case, it has been, you know, split in that my, you know, I carried out the Danish translation before the English translation.
And I did that with my father who is a Danish poet and then we worked very closely together on the text.
And he, you know, whenever we were talking about the Epic, getting lectures about it, he would always summarize the moral of the Epic and I would always say no, no, no.
And we would always go back and forth and became kind of almost a comedy routine in these lectures we gave.
And I, and just because I'm reacting to him, I've gotten used to saying that Gilgamesh leaves so many questions open and you can interpret it in so many ways.
But that being said, I absolutely share that instinctive reading that Gilgamesh comes back a wiser but sadder man.
And that he comes back as a better leader as a better king.
But I think the Epic allows for that interpretation but doesn't force it.
Well, I'm really glad that we're talking about the, you know, the Epic itself in all of its, I don't want to say textual detail because that's the wrong metaphor for the, it's a uniform detail or the, it's literary detail put it that way because otherwise, you know, we could have devoted the whole show to just talking about the importance of the, you know, the flood story, the fact that in fact, we should mention that what excited scholars about the discovery of the Epic.
The Epic of Gilgamesh 150 years ago, by the way, it is the anniversary, 150th anniversary is it not so forth.
It is indeed, it is the 150th anniversary this year of its modern week discovery.
So, you know, congratulations to Gilgamesh.
Yeah, but it's, isn't it amazing that 152 years ago, we did not, we knew nothing about the Sumerian civilization.
Absolutely. And I think, you know, I have this phrase that I used to describe Gilgamesh that I call it a found foundation because it's foundational in the sense that, you know, we really are invested in the fact that it's the first something, you know, we want, we like, we're drawn by the fact that it has this ancient status as like an origin as bedrock.
But at the same time, it's relatively recent discovery when you compare it to, you know, the Greek and Roman classics. It's, you know, it has only been 150 years.
And the, there's something fresh about it. And there's a poem called Michael Smith who has this great point about Gilgamesh that it hasn't had time to sink in. And I really think that's true.
There you go. So, and what excited people, 150 years ago was the idea that you have no, no of its flood story before, you know, the Hebrew scriptures and that it antecede's the story of a universal flood.
So that is not part of necessarily the Gilgamesh story, but it is the story of how the gods allowed one man and his wife to escape the flood and become immortals, the peace team.
I've only now just realized, of course, that that is connected to the aspect we've just been talking about the individual versus the river, the river being elevated to a cosmic degree that I mean, I never actually thought about that, because he tells the flood story just after he makes that parable about the, about the river, and this is the individual death.
And the way of saying that the flood is just like a giant realization of that scene. Well, in fact, yeah, and I from another geological historical point of view, I feel that the stories of a flood are, they're not universal, but you find them in many cultures around this referring the same time.
I have to believe that it refers to some actual event in our history, namely the melting of the glaciers during the end of the last ice sage, where you had a completely different climate taking shape with a lot more rain and fluvial floods and things of that sort.
Anyway, the point, the point is that the flood story is interesting. Ootna peach team and his wife are in a kind of faraway place where they live out a rather boring immortal life, ever lasting life, put it that way.
Gilgamesh after a desperate journey reaches their abode and they say, I think that a patient says, okay, if you want to sleep, if you want to be immortal, I'm asking you to stay awake for seven days. You mentioned earlier, so if you said six and seven, those numbers come back.
And he's asked to stay awake for a week. And no problem, but he falls asleep immediately.
And sleep sort of full week, he sleeps for a full week. Therefore, what does it mean to be human, one possible answer? It means to be a need of sleep. Sleep is also the dream world and so much of the mystery that you were talking about, for example, in the forest journey, all the questions that are unresolved, it's very own, near it.
Everything seems to be taking place in a dream and they're always, when they're up in the sea, they're sleeping a lot. And you're dreaming a lot. It's really hallucinogenic in that sense.
Yeah, in Gilgamesh dreams, these very powerful dreams about Enkidu before Enkidu arrives. Yeah, and there's actually, I think, a way of connecting the story of the flood in this motif of dreams, because of course, dreams are, you know, the powerful visions, but they're also very much to these characters, omens, you know, they're messages from the gods.
And we were talking about this prevalence of flood stories all over the world, and, you know, the possible origins in historical fact, which is debated but possible.
But I think it's telling that each of these cultures that accounts the same story or variations on it puts a different twist on it. And in the biblical version, the flood is very much about, you know, human sin and establishing a new relation to God.
And what the flood story in the Babylonian world is about, I think at least, this is, you know, more in my view of things than established fact, is about why the communication between God and humans is so indirect.
Because there is this story that the God, Enkidu or Ea couldn't warn humans directly, because he was sworn to silence. So in order to save and not push him, he basically invents the first omens.
So that then becomes the default mode of communication between gods and humans through dreams, through signs in the world, and like through merit directly.
So the flood is the ultimate cutting of, you know, not ultimate cutting because God and humans cancel communicate, but it establishes a new regime of communication between gods and humans.
And the flood is also, at the same time, it establishes a new relation of information between God and humans. It also establishes a new relation of information between the president and the past.
Because, you know, Kineiform is first and foremost written on clay, clay is water soluble.
So when the flood comes, it wipes all the past away and it says in the text, you know, all the past is turned to clay. So the flood is also an anti-textual event.
And we've talked about how self-aware the Epic is, and you know, it describes itself as being made of stone, so that it would survive a second flood.
But the flood is ultimately about, you know, having a different relation to one's past and to the gods.
Yeah. That's fantastic. It's totally fantastic.
So, so for today, how many years did you study the language and in your degree as a as a seriologist? Can you say something about that field of study?
Absolutely. So, what I'd like to say is that a cadient, the language in which this is written, isn't very easy language.
And that sounds like a joke, but it isn't. You know, I've encountered a number of ancient languages in my studies and a cadient is both my favorite.
And the easiest, by far, it's incredibly regular and very beautifully constructed.
The writing system on the other have Kineiform takes a lifetime to master and it didn't take a lifetime to master even for the ancient scribes.
And that's not a bad thing. It takes a lifetime to master because it is so rich and so complex and every sign can have, can operate in many ways that once and have many connotations.
It can also be straightforward and, you know, every day used for business, but in literary texts, especially, Kineiform is such a rich script.
And superior in the other main language of this region is also a challenge for reasons that I don't have time to call you for now, but that's challenging and so on.
As for the field more broadly, I think as seriology, you know, of course having studied it, I have such an attachment to it, but it really is struggling to attract funding to attract new students.
And that is the way of as seriology, unfortunately, but it is also the way of philological fields more broadly, the same can be said of synology,
the topology, each ontology, and so on and so forth. I see the main hope of these fields as lying in a new philological consciousness by which I mean a new discovery of all these disparate fields as belonging to the same philological overarching discipline.
I think it really is a question that stands for when we stand united to rediscover the links that bind philologists with each other across these subdisciplines, but also of the links that bind us to philology across time.
You know, there were a balloonian and a Syrian philologists studying Sumerian texts like philology is in many ways the older science, you can recognize activities in the ancient world that are easily legible as a spillological and philology exists all over the world you see it in, you know, medieval China and early modern India and in the modern world.
So we really think that to survive these fields must must connect with each other and with their own past.
Well, I see signs everywhere that of what you're describing not only in philology with the reduced funding fewer students, but anything that has to do with pre 20th century is becoming pre history.
A loss of memory and a kind of lack of interest among people and so in a certain sense what you were describing with all those disciplines which are at risk of maybe even disappearing is a flood.
And we just have to hold on to it because we need antiquity as a kind of source from which we can renew our own futureity I'm convinced of that at night.
And therefore the work that you and your other colleagues are doing I think is heroic really.
And I was just about to pick up on the word heroic because we've been talking about how heroes have a different relation to time, you know, that they are invested in the future but also as
I think they are the ability to show their profoundly invested in the past and there are ways in which I think we should be more like build in that there are many ways in which I think we should absolutely not be more like a nice but I do think that these heroic narratives can help us think about time and think about a relationship time in really interesting ways.
I don't know down about that.
Well I want to remind our listeners we've been speaking with Sophu's Haile who is a scholar of a seriologist, you know, from Denmark with this new translation of the story of Gilgamesh published by Yale University Pressists this last year.
And from what I gather there's more to come from you Sophu's I've for one definitely looking forward to that.
And to leave us actually I mentioned that I teach Gilgamesh often I've taught also with a colleague of mine Dan Edlstein who like me is a musician.
And we actually compose a little piece called Gilgamesh Blues that I'm going to leave for the end of the show but these are the lyrics.
Amazing. These are the lyrics of Dan Edlstein who actually sings in it.
I had to go out on my own, cooped up in the city, I say I had to go out and roam.
I'm two parts God, one part man and my heart is heavier than stone.
And then the second verse is there's a dark house of death, that's where Enchider was gone.
I say there's a dark house where there ain't no dawn.
That's where my Enchider keys gone.
My friends down in the birdhouse waiting so I'll be going there before too long.
And then I'm tired man, I'm sleepy, that's why I can't be Uthnapish team.
Thought I'd write down my sad story just to let off some steam. Maybe this time around if E. Stark comes back.
I won't be so mean.
And then it ends with if you're ever down in Ura climb up my city wall, see my name stamped in brick and my exploits do recall.
That's all I can hope for now to be remembered after I fall.
So we're going to take our leave of wonderful love that loved and with the skill the mush blues in which it's Dan singing and it's yours truly namely me who's playing the lead guitar part.
Thanks again for coming on so for us.
Thank you for having me. This has been great.
One, two, three, four.
Could you have been a city?
I had to go out of my own.
I had to go out and grow.
My heart is heavier than I still.
Well, there's the dark as a death.
That's where my hate is going.
Well, I said I'd have to have spent the right note on my head back.
That's where my kiss goes.
I'll be going before the home.
I ain't for that.
I ain't for that.
I'm tired of dying.
I'm tired, I'm so sleepy.
That's why I can't be known.
I'm so sleepy.
I thought I'd write down my sad story.
Just to let all of us go to sleep.
No rather, maybe next time round, a badish star brought up back.
I won't be so gosh darned.
Well, let's go!
I'm a darling, a look.
Well, I'm a darling, a look.
I'm a dreamer, a dreamer.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah it's my next month to come
Well, that's what I come for now
To be remembered
Well, that's what I call